College football preview: Northwestern defensive bench remains deep
An injury to a key player may have shown just what kind of strength Northwestern has this season.
Keith Watkins II, who was second among Wildcat cornerbacks in tackles in 2015, was hit with a season-ending knee injury during practice earlier this month. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald called Watkins' situation “an unfortunate loss,” but added that the team feels comfortable with moving Montre Hartage, who played in 13 games last season, up the cornerback ladder – and still having depth behind him.
“A few years ago, we weren’t in a position where we had what I would call organizational depth, and we have that now,” Fitzgerald said. “It creates an exciting and competitive atmosphere because guys know that the guy behind them is pushing them to be better every day.”
That's a big part of what Fitzgerald called one of the most physically impressive defenses he's had in his 11 seasons in charge. That's no small feat, given that last year's defense was one of the best in the nation and the driving force behind Northwestern's 10-3 record and Outback Bowl bid.
On offense, the Wildcats have Justin Jackson, the conference's rushing-yards leader last season, with 1,418 yards and a second-team all-conference pick. But a big key for the offense will be the continued development of sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson (1,522 passing yards, seven touchdown passes, 397 rushing yards).
When looking at a football team for the first time, new Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said the first offensive position to look at is quarterback.
For the Illini (4-8 overall, 2-6 in Big Ten), that first look would be at senior Wes Lunt, who averaged 230.1 passing yards per game last season, with 14 touchdown passes and six interceptions. This offseason, Lunt has been put on three awards-watch lists.
“Wes is very smart, has a strong arm, has earned the respect of his teammates and is a terrific leader,” Smith said. “He and (quarterbacks coach Garrick) McGee work very well together, and I’m very confident Wes will do a great job of getting the ball where it needs to be.”
The defense will be led by linemen Dawuane Smoot (eight sacks, 15 tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries) and Carroll Phillips (two sacks, 4½ tackles for loss).
The Vikings (4-6 overall, 3-4 in CCIW) will be without graduated quarterback Sam Frasco, who was the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin Offensive Player of the Year last season. This season, head coach Stephen Bell said the offense's strength will have to be the whole and not individual parts.
“We are very young on offense, but have some talented guys,” Bell said.
At press time, Bell had not publicly announced a starting quarterback, although he said “we are excited about this position because it is talented, but young.”
Senior Brandon Price is the leading returning rusher after getting 416 yards last season.
Experience is not a problem on defense. Senior linebacker Jack Asquini had a team-high 108 tackles, including 12 for a loss, as he claimed All-CCIW honors, while senior safety Frank Kalble (81 tackles) was the team's defensive MVP.
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